Uh oh. I wish someone would have warned me, because I think I’ve become addicted to train travel. In retrospect, I shouldn’t be surprised. I used to love getting on the old Erie Lackawana to visit the big city, and my first overnight train – a trip to Orlando – was a great adventure spent exploring the snaking length of all the cars, from cafe to coach to first class. I suppose it was further fueled by a month in Europe, where a Eurail pass made traveling and sleeping on the train the way to see the continent.
But now that I’ve discovered LA Rail, I can see I might really have a problem. Two trips on the Santa Barbara Vino Train just served to whet my appetite. When I saw the consortium also offered local dining and overnight trips, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I’d succumb to that temptation.
And so it was that I found myself at Union Station yesterday in the presence of two restored Pullman cars from the 1950s, the Pacific Sands and the Salisbury Beach. They were hooked up to Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner to take us down to San Diego, where we’d enjoy a day in the city, and a night at the station aboard the train.
Stepping onto these cars was stepping back in time. Our assigned car, the Salisbury Beach, originally served the Boston and Maine railroad, accommodating passengers traveling between Concord, New Hampshire and New York City. Dating back to 1954, it has been beautifully restored by owners Tom and Carol Pearson, who joined us on the trip. The old but well maintained features belie the fact that the car had been neglected after it went out of use, and they did an amazing job replacing parts and getting things in working condition. Equally impressive was our sister car, the Pacific Sands, which served Union Pacific Railroad cities. Owner Doug Spinn also accompanied us on the trip.
My assigned roomette, #11, was a marvel of mid-century technology and design. Toggle switches controlled the myriad of lighting options; a button summoned the porter, and two dials adjusted my individual climate. My roomette featured a small washstand with a fold-down shelf, and even its own toilet, discretely covered by a seat/footrest. By day, the seat was bigger and more comfortable than any first class airline seat. At night, the entire wall folded down Murphy-style to deliver a bed that was a comfortable as many hotel beds I’ve encountered. Though it filled the compartment when down, the bed was even ingeniously designed with a cut-out to allow one to stand in a small space next to the door. With a big picture window and several mirrors, the space was far from claustrophobic. I can see it well-suited to the business traveler of the 50s. And of course now to the recreational traveler and train enthusiast of today.
At 8:30 the train slowly started out of the station. Before we had even crossed the LA River I had found the open sections of the car, where several fellow passengers were gathering and checking out the continental breakfast spread. Coffee was hot and fresh, and the lurching of the train encouraged me to find an open seat, where I enjoyed meeting passengers Agnes and Wilson, who were also making their first trip.
The open compartments are a neat concept – serving as dinettes by day, each seats 4 people and turns into beds for 3 at night. The catch is that the only privacy is via a curtain, so I think any night use on these trips is mostly by crew. If you’ve seen Some Like It Hot, you get the gist of how these are arranged. All in all, the Salisbury Beach boasts 6 roomettes, 4 2-person bedrooms, 4 open compartments, a kitchenette, shower and bathrooms. L and I marveled at how much fit into a car – some magician pulled off a great trick in making the inside twice as large as the outside.
When we stopped in Fullerton, I went back to the room, and found L also enjoying coffee across the aisle – hers had been delivered by Joe, our porter. Joe looked in on us all throughout the trip and was especially welcomed later as we struggled to figure out the workings of the bed.
The trip down south was spent exploring, meeting fellow passengers, reading and relaxing, and enjoying this mode of transportation many have forgotten. When we met up with the coast near Dana Point, I enjoyed taking in the scenery from my own big window. The tracks are so close to the ocean; the surfers and volleyball players seemed an arm’s length away.
Just around 11:30, we pulled into San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot. A short stop let off the Amtrak passengers, and then our cars were moved to the section of track that would be home for the next 30 hours. You couldn’t find a better location, with the water on one side, downtown on the other, and a public transportation hub at the doorstep. We bought a $5 MTS day pass and found the #7 bus bound for Balboa Park. 15 minutes later, we were smack in the middle of this urban playground. Despite the partly cloudy weather, families and street performers alike were out enjoying the day. We were entertained by jugglers and musicians as we explored the Prado and its abundance of museums. We opted for a lunch at Lady Carolyn’s pub, near the Globe Theatre. Then we visited – where else? – the model railroad museum. It didn’t take a lot of time, but had some impressive displays. For a real model railroad enthusiast, I’m sure it could consume hours. I was content to watch the trains and trolleys go around the tracks.
One of the surprise treats was the free Botanical Building, where an amazing collection or orchids delighted us with their brilliant colors and delicate shapes. We had fun people-watching, and there was no end to the amusing characters in sight some seemingly right out of Alice in Wonderland.
Although we had a few ice cream options in the park, Yelp told us of a good gelato place in Hillcrest, so we used that destination as an excuse to walk through the park and get some exercise. Any gain there was blown by the delicious gelato at Pappalecco, but it was worth it. The nearby #10 bus took us down to Old Town. We were really tempted by the great smells of Mexican food, but already had dinner plans. There was an artist who made cool paintings in about 5 minutes by manipulating oil paints on glass with his fingers. L bought several. As the sun was setting and it got chilly, we hopped on the blue line trolley, which delivered us right back to the depot and our accommodations.
A quick change, and we set out on foot to Little Italy, just a few blocks away. It’s a fun night spot, full of great places to eat and drink. We had some time before meeting friends, so we popped into a nice wine bar, Enoteca Style, where we enjoyed a flight of reds and trio of prosciutto rolls.
A highlight of the trip was a visit with friends who live in Carlsbad. They drove down to have dinner with us. We decided on Indigo Grill based on reviews. The cuisine was creative and fun – a good place to enjoy catching up with friends. Before we knew it, the night had slipped by, and we were all ready to head home.
For us, that consisted of a pleasant 4-block stroll back to the station. The sleeper cars were waiting right where we left them. In our respective roomettes, the day chairs gave way to beds as we pulled them down and settled in. I didn’t know how a night spent in close quarters with other guests would go, but I wound up sleeping like a baby. City noise was non-existent, nor was there a peep from fellow passengers. In fact, it seemed like I had whole car to myself. The bed was very comfortable, and the temperature was great.
Morning arrived and I was in no rush to leave the coziness of the room. A few rain showers sprinkled the area, and it was nice to view the weather from the inside. By 8:15 we were ready for breakfast, and the nearby Grand Central Cafe delivered the goods. We popped back to the room and then headed to the aircraft carrier, USS Midway for its 10am opening.
I can’t believe I’ve never visited this site – especially when it’s now ranked as San Diego’s number one attraction. I can say now it’s for good reason, due to the sheer size, its rich history, and the fantastic curating of the exhibits. It feels as if you have full run of the ship as you explore the various areas at your own pace and learn as much as you like about the parts that interest you. After two hours, I hadn’t even made it yet to the flight deck! That deck alone could consume hours if you take time to learn about all the planes on display, or to talk with the guides who know all about the workings of an aircraft carrier from first-hand experience.
Early in the afternoon we needed to fuel up before our return journey, and Karl Strauss was the ideal place to do so. Just 2 blocks from the station, it offered local brew, ahi poke, and hummus dip that made for a tasty lunch. We arrived back at the depot with plenty of time for last minute pictures and a chance to chat with the hosts before the train left the station at 2:55. Normally the departure is closer to 6pm, but track maintenance necessitated the earlier departure. It would have been nice to have a few extra hours in San Diego, but with a day of work awaiting me Monday, I also didn’t complain about the opportunity to get home at an earlier hour.
Ironically, my discover of LA Rail began last summer when I was googling unique hotel accommodations, like a Pullman car. It was fitting to now get to actually experience one in style. Now back at home, I’m a bit sad at how quickly it all flew by. I can’t recommend this trip enough and hope it won’t be too long before I get to enjoy another one aboard the restored cars of LA Rail.
There were way too many awesome photo subjects, so below are additional pics from the trip: